What distinguishes this unpretentious carry-out place from its competitors is the notable absence of MSG and batter- and grease-laden General Tso and orange chicken dishes that are ubiquitous on the menus of many Asian restaurants, but which lack authenticity and nutritional value.
Furthermore, what the place lacks in decor is supplanted by the warmly attentive “Asian Mama,” as one of my dining companions affectionately refers to the amiable proprietor. Though I was dining with relatively large group, she was always bubbly and kind, willing to answer questions, make suggestions, and was humbly attentive — even after we’d placed our orders.
To be sure, the menu is small but varied. Customers can choose from various bento box entrees that come with a protein and two vegetable side dishes that vary each day. There are also a variety of soups and dim sum dishes available, such as seafood shu mai and chive dumplings. I went with the “Amazing Chicken” bento box; the bird was tender and and juicy, though a little fatty. It is dark meat, after all.
But the side dishes are the real showstoppers. I received a side dish of greenbeans tossed with hearty onion slivers, carrot shreds, and a visible confetti of minced garlic. Cabbage, meanwhile, comprised the second vegetable side dish and shared the dance with mushrooms, carrot, green onions, and zuccini. Both side dishes were tasty and managed to capture the natural, unadulterated sweetness of the vegetable. In essence, everything tasted like something I would find on my dinner plate at home — only better.
Since Cafe 88 is one of the few bubble tea vendors in Charlottesville, I excitedly ordered the milk bubble tea, though flavors such as peach, honeydew, and taro are also available. The popular beverage at this location is tea-based and more aqueous than smoothie-like concoctions available in Northern Virginia. In any case, the tea contained tapioca balls that had enough bite without being too chewy, and tasted as it ought to.
And though Cafe 88 is slightly off the beaten path (though it is located in the shopping center opposite McGrady’s Irish Pub on Preston Ave.), it’s worth the extra mileage to experience homey Asian food, and to meet the equally congenial hostess.
(Originally posted June 22, 2010)